American Civil War: The Battle of Philippi (1861)

Battle of Philippi
Colonel Frederick Lander's ride at the Battle of Philippi, 1861. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The Battle of Philippi was fought June 3, 1861, during the American Civil War (1861-1865). With the attack on Fort Sumter and beginning of the Civil War in April 1861, George McClellan returned to the US Army after four years of working in the railroad industry. Commissioned as a major general on April 23, he received command of the Department of Ohio in early May. Headquartered at Cincinnati, he began campaigning into western Virginia (present-day West Virginia) with the goal of protecting the vital Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and possibly opening an avenue of advance on the Confederate capital of Richmond.

Union Commander

  • Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris
  • 3,000 men

Confederate Commander

  • Colonel George Porterfield
  • 800 men

Into Western Virginia

Reacting to the loss of the railroad bridge at Farmington, VA, McClellan dispatched Colonel Benjamin F. Kelley's 1st (Union) Virginia Infantry along with a company of the 2nd (Union) Virginia Infantry from their base at Wheeling. Moving south, Kelley's command united with Colonel James Irvine's 16th Ohio Infantry and advanced to secure the key bridge over the Monongahela River at Fairmont. Having accomplished this goal, Kelley pressed south to Grafton. As Kelley moved through central western Virginia, McClellan ordered the second column, under Colonel James B. Steedman, to take Parkersburg before moving on to Grafton.

Opposing Kelley and Steedman was Colonel George A. Porterfield's force of 800 Confederates. Assembling at Grafton, Porterfield's men were raw recruits that had recently rallied to the flag. Lacking the strength to confront the Union advance, Porterfield ordered his men to retreat south to the town of Philippi. Approximately seventeen miles from Grafton, the town possessed a key bridge over the Tygart Valley River and sat on the Beverly-Fairmont Turnpike. With the Confederate withdrawal, Kelley's men entered Grafton on May 30.

The Union Plan

Having committed significant forces to the region, McClellan placed Brigadier General Thomas Morris in overall command. Arriving at Grafton on June 1, Morris consulted with Kelley. Aware of the Confederate presence at Philippi, Kelley proposed a pincer movement to crush Porterfield's command. One wing, led by Colonel Ebenezer Dumont and assisted by McClellan aide Colonel Frederick W. Lander, was to move south via Webster and approach Philippi from the north. Numbering around 1,400 men, Dumont's force consisted of the 6th and 7th Indiana Infantries as well as the 14th Ohio Infantry.

This movement would be complemented by Kelley who planned to take his regiment along with the 9th Indiana and the 16th Ohio Infantries east and then south to strike Philippi from the rear. To mask the movement, his men embarked on the Baltimore & Ohio as if moving to Harpers Ferry. Departing on June 2, Kelley's force left their trains at the village of Thornton and began marching south. Despite poor weather during the night, both columns arrived outside the town before dawn on June 3. Moving into position to attack, Kelley and Dumont had agreed that a pistol shot would be the signal to begin the advance.

The Philippi Races

Due to the rain and a lack of training, the Confederates had not set pickets during the night. As the Union troops moved towards the town, a Confederate sympathizer, Matilda Humphries, spotted their approach. Dispatching one of her sons to warn Porterfield, he was quickly captured. In response, she fired her pistol at the Union troops. This shot was misinterpreted as the signal to begin the battle. Opening fire, Union artillery began striking the Confederate positions as the infantry attacked. Caught by surprise, the Confederate troops offered little resistance and began fleeing south.

With Dumont's men crossing into Philippi via the bridge, Union forces quickly won a victory. Despite this, it was not complete as Kelley's column had entered Philippi by the wrong road and was not in the position to cut off Porterfield's retreat. As a result, Union troops were forced to pursue the enemy. In brief fight, Kelley was severely wounded, though his attacker was ridden down by Lander. McClellan's aide earned fame earlier in the battle when he rode his horse down a steep slope to enter the fighting. Continuing their retreat, Confederate forces did not halt until reaching Huttonsville 45 miles to the south.

Aftermath of the Battle

Dubbed the "Philippi Races" due to the speed of the Confederate retreat, the battle saw Union forces sustain a mere four casualties. Confederate losses numbered 26. In the wake of the battle, Porterfield was replaced by Brigadier General Robert Garnett. Though a minor engagement, the Battle of Philippi had far-reaching consequences. One of the first clashes of the war, it thrust McClellan into the national spotlight and his successes in western Virginia paved the way for him to take command of Union forces after the defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run in July.

The Union victory also inspired western Virginia, which had opposed leaving the Union, to nullify Virginia's ordinance of secession at the Second Wheeling Convention. Naming Francis H. Pierpont governor, the western counties began moving down the path that would lead to the creation of the state of West Virginia in 1863.


mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: The Battle of Philippi (1861)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Civil War: The Battle of Philippi (1861). Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: The Battle of Philippi (1861)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).